The EFF Standards And How They Work
(Adapted from Equipped for the Future Content Standards, pp. 17-20.)

EFF Standards include four fundamental categories of skills that adults need to draw from to carry out the key activities that are central to their primary roles:
Communication Skills
  • Read With Understanding
  • Convey Ideas in Writing
  • Speak So Others Can Understand
  • Listen Actively
  • Observe Critically
Decision-Making Skills
  • Solve Problems and Make Decisions
  • Plan
  • Use Math to Solve Problems and Communicate
Interpersonal Skills
  • Cooperate With Others
  • Guide Others
  • Advocate and Influence
  • Resolve Conflict and Negotiate
Lifelong Learning Skills
  • Take Responsibility for Learning
  • Learn Through Research
  • Reflect and Evaluate
  • Use Information and Communications Technology

Four Categories of EFF Skills
Standards for Standards
Specifying the Standards

The 16 Equipped for the Future Standards define the core knowledge and skills adults need to effectively carry out their roles as parents, citizens, and workers. The Standards have been identified through research on what adults need to do to meet the broad areas of responsibility that define these central adult roles. They do not address the full range of activities adults carry out in these roles; rather, they focus on the knowledge and skills that enable adults to

  • gain access to information and ideas;
  • communicate with the confidence that their message makes sense and can be understood by others;
  • make decisions that are based on solid information and reached through thoughtful analysis, consideration of options, and careful judgment;
  • keep on learning so they won't be left behind.
    These are the four purposes for learning that adult learners identified in the first phases of the EFF research.

Four Categories of EFF Skills

The EFF list of necessary skills is different from the list adult educators traditionally use. It starts with the Communication Skills—the skills adults need for access to information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, and observing. But it also includes three additional categories of skills that adults need in order to use the information they access to carry out their responsibilities: to speak and act effectively in their roles as parents, citizens, and workers. These categories of skills (see sidebar) include those we traditionally think of as interpersonal skills, and those decision-making and learning skills we traditionally talk about as "higher order" or critical-thinking skills.

Grouping the skills into these four categories is intended to underline the interchangeability of skills within a category. For example, some activities that require adults to Work Together can be carried out most effectively by relying on oral and visual communication skills. In such situations, reading and writing may not be the most important means of communicating with others about what needs to get done. Similarly, the specific interpersonal skills one needs to draw on will vary from situation to situation depending on the task and context. The categories reflect this variability of skills, encouraging adult learners to think about all the skills in a given category as tools they may want to draw on selectively to achieve their purpose more effectively. Being able to use all the skills in each category with a high degree of competence maximizes flexibility,giving adults a range of choices for how they can meet daily challenges and opportunities.

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Standards for Standards

Every standards development effort is guided by a set of criteria that reflect shared assumptions about learning and the role of standards. The following "standards for standards" identify the key criteria that guided EFF Standards development over the past five years:


  • EFF Standards must accurately reflect what adults need to know and be able to do. EFF's definition of what adults "need to know and be able to do" is based on analysis of what adults do in their roles as workers, citizens, and members of families and communities. Since every effort was made by the EFF team to start with an accurate picture of adult roles and role performance, there is real confidence that the Standards truly represent the knowledge and skills critical to real-world success—for now. The world will continue to change, however, and EFF Standards must also be dynamic and capable of change. The EFF Role Maps and Standards will need to be reviewed periodically to make sure they continue to reflect real-world demands. In this way we can assure that performance against the EFF Standards translates into real-world results.

  • EFF Standards must be reflective of broad consensus. Every component of the Framework on which the EFF Standards are based, including the four Purposes, the Role Maps, and the Standards, has been refined through an iterative process of feedback, comment, and testing. The four Purposes emerged from learner writings about the national adult literacy and life-long learning goal. The broad areas of responsibility and key activities in the Role Maps are based on structured feedback sessions involving, in each case, three to four hundred adults identified as effective performers in the role of worker, parent/family member, or citizen/community member. The Standards were refined through nearly two years of field and expert review. As a result, this Framework and these Standards reflect a broad and inclusive consensus on what is important for adults to know and do to be maximally effective in their daily lives.

  • EFF Standards must be specific enough to guide instruction and assessment. Once the core areas of knowledge and skills covered in the EFF Standards were defined, the Standards were refined through two rounds of field review to assure that teachers working with adults at every level of skill development could use them to guide instruction and assessment. The goal of the Standards development team was to make sure that the Standards were specific enough to communicate to adult learners, teachers, and other education professionals what is most important for students to learn, without dictating how the ideas or information should be taught.

  • EFF Standards must be able to be measured. In specifying the content of each Standard, the EFF development team turned to researchers and evaluators, as well as field reviewers, to help ensure that EFF Standards focus on performance that is observable and measurable. The goal of these efforts was to define standards that enable instructors not only to document performance but also to place it on a continuum and let students know if they are performing well enough to accomplish a desired goal.

  • EFF Standards must define multiple levels of performance for students to strive for. The EFF development team is just beginning the work of defining performance levels for EFF Standards. These levels will be descriptive, focusing on what adults can do with the knowledge and skills at each level, including what external benchmarks are linked to each level. This approach to setting levels is based on the assumptions that adults differ in the goals they want to achieve at different points in their lives and that different goals require different levels of performance. Once EFF performance levels are set, adults will be able to use them, in combination with EFF Role Maps and Content Standards, to make informed choices about the level of proficiency they need to develop to achieve goals they set for themselves.

  • EFF Standards must be written clearly enough for all stakeholders to understand. One of the strongest imperatives guiding the EFF Standards development process has been always to keep in mind the multiple audiences that need to understand the Standards. Our goal has been to write Standards that are compelling enough to inspire adult learners, teachers, and tutors, and clear enough to send a coherent message to policymakers and other stakeholders about what students know and are able to do if they meet EFF Standards.

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    Specifying the Standards

    Since the starting place in defining the EFF Standards is what people do that requires the knowledge and skills that make up each Standard, every effort has been made to assure that the Standards sharply focus on application of skills.

    Naming the Standards. The name of each EFF Standard focuses on how adults need to use the skill to carry out the core of activities common to the three roles. The EFF Reading Standard is called Read With Understanding to express the focus on purpose and use: adults need sufficient mastery of decoding and comprehension strategies to accomplish a task requiring them to Gather, Analyze, and Use Information or Manage Resources,for instance. The level of mastery required will vary, depending on task and context. Similarly, the EFF Math Standard is called Using Math to Solve Problems and Communicate to make clear the role that number sense and mathematical operations play in helping adults carry out key activities in their daily lives.

    Focusing the Content of the Standards. This focus on application is continued in the description of the content of the Standard. For example, the components of the standard "Read With Understanding" include: Determine the reading purpose; Select reading strategies appropriate to the purpose; Monitor comprehension and adjust reading strategies; Analyze the information and reflect on its underlying meaning; Integrate it with prior knowledge to address reading purpose.

    This Content Standard has been framed to include the key elements of the reading process as defined in the Reading Excellence Act (REA).19 In the REA, reading is defined as "a complex system of deriving meaning from print that requires all of the following: a) the skills and knowledge to understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print; b) the ability to decode unfamiliar words; c) the ability to read fluently; d) sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension; e) the development of appropriate active strategies to construct meaning from print; f ) the development and maintenance of a motivation to read" (Sec. 2252(4)). These necessary components of reading are reflected in points two and three of the EFF Standard: "Select reading strategies appropriate to purpose" and "Monitor comprehension and adjust reading strategies." In the EFF Standard, these specific skills and abilities are explicitly wedded to the reader's "purpose."

    EFF research with adult learners has convinced us that purpose is the key to motivation for adults—motivation to learn and motivation to achieve. The EFF Standards have been designed to encourage adult learners and their teachers to think about strategies for learning and for using skills in the context of the learner's purpose, to identify barriers along the way to achieving that purpose, and to identify and try out new strategies that might enable the learner to get past those barriers. A shorthand way of saying this is that EFF Standards encourage a problem-solving approach to skill development. While the focus of teaching and assessment is what students need to learn in a particular situation to achieve their purpose, the goal is longer-term: to build, over time, the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that facilitate learning with understanding and transfer of learning from one context to another.

    The EFF development team adopted this approach to the Standards for two primary reasons. First, it makes sense in terms of how adults need to use skills in the world. A problem-solving approach to developing knowledge and skills fits with a world in which adults' everyday life responsibilities demand that they be able to identify and respond to change and challenge at work and at home. Second, it is congruent with the growing body of research on how people learn. Teaching skills in the context of purpose and application facilitates retention of knowledge in a usable form—so students can draw on it as necessary, in a range of contexts and situations.

    Practitioners in the field development process supported this approach to defining standards for similar reasons. They told us that standards focused on "purposes" speak directly to the goals and needs of their students. Adult students are highly goal-directed. They come to formal learning situations actively seeking knowledge and skills in order to build competence in their lives and accomplish things that have an impact on those around them. Making sure that each Content Standard explicitly focuses on what the teachers came to call "components of competent performance" enabled teachers to identify with greater specificity what their students can and cannot do so they can better align teaching and assessment with learner needs and goals.